Venezuelan Opposition Must Abandon Violent Protests to Deescalate Tensions

The opposition must end violent protests aimed at ousting the elected Maduro government as a prerequisite for national reconciliation, argues University of Oriente Professor Steve Ellner. 


Any viable solution to the current crisis in Venezuela cannot pass over the origins of the political violence that has intensified over the recent past and now overshadows other national issues such as economic problems and delinquency. The opposition and much of the media in Venezuela and nearly all of the international media hold the government exclusively responsible for the nearly one hundred resultant deaths. According to this narrative, the sequence that results in violence is unmistakable: first peaceful marches followed by brutal government repression and then the reactive excesses by a few belligerent break-away demonstrators. Those civilians who engage in violent actions are sometimes labeled Chavistas or infiltrados, whose function is to discredit the protests. Opposition political leaders, according to this version, often attempt to reason with the few belligerent protestors to convince them to desist from engaging in violence.

Ample evidence places in doubt the veracity of this interpretation of what is happening on the ground. The facts point in a different direction, namely that there is an articulation of various types of protest:

  1. The lines between the peaceful legal protests, the peaceful illegal protests (such as the blocking of traffic), and the violent protests are not clearly drawn. Actually, few of the protests are legal since most involve blocking traffic, sometimes by means of fires that extend from one end of the street to the other. At what point does one type of protest end and the other begin? At what point on the continuum can the protesters be considered infiltrados?
  2. Some opposition strategists talk of the “Ukrainian manual” in which the combination of various types of protests succeeded in toppling a government.
  3. Most of the protests take place in municipalities governed by the opposition; the municipal police force does nothing to impede or attempt to control them.
  4. The opposition repeatedly calls “peaceful” marches that are bound to lead to violent confrontation. On numerous occasions they call marches to reach downtown Caracas, knowing full well that they will be forcefully blocked by the government out of fear of a repetition of April 11, 2002, when such a protest erupted in violence leading to the overthrow of Chávez. In recent days, they have called for demonstrations in front of Caracas’ Carlota air force base, even though it has been the target of numerous attacks by hooded protesters, resulting in a number of casualties. The predictability of violence in these cases would appear to shed light on the opposition’s dubious intentions.
  5. Some members of the opposition have manifested a degree of intolerance and fanaticism that equals that of fringe groups on the right in the United States and Europe. Their behavior and expressions of hatred for the Chavistas can be gleaned from countless social media posts as well as from everyday conversations. Their attitudes lend credibility to the claim that those protesters who engage in violence belong to the opposition.
  6. Another indication that violence is perpetrated by members of the opposition and is not of an isolated nature is that it dates back to the early years of Chávez’s rule and has been repeatedly employed. Incidents of this nature occurred prior to the April 2002 coup, following the failed general strike of 2002–2003 (including bomb explosions at the Colombian and Spanish embassies in Caracas), an abortive paramilitary incursion in Caracas in May 2005, following the announcement of the non-renewal of the television concession for Radio Caracas in 2007, immediately following Maduro’s election in 2013, and during the four months of “guarimba” in 2014. The notion that the violence carried out by demonstrators is a spontaneous response to repression overlooks the historical context.

By presenting the narrative that the opposition-perpetrated violence is a spontaneous response to repression, the media (as well as the hierarchy of the Catholic Church) is doing a disservice to the cause of national reconciliation and stability while encouraging the radical currents of the opposition.

For their part, President Maduro and other top Chavista leaders have failed to persuasively clarify the relationship between these different types of protest and instead they focus on the violence perpetrated by the opposition. Little is said of the illegal nature of non-violent protests that involve the blocking of traffic. Nor do Maduro and other Chavista leaders emphatically explain why the marches are not allowed to reach downtown Caracas. These shortcomings give credibility to the opposition’s narrative, specifically its claim that a small fringe (possible consisting of infiltrados) is alone responsible for the street violence.

National reconciliation requires concessions on both sides. Anti-government leaders, for their part, need to explicitly repudiate the violence by recognizing the culpability of protesters who are acting on behalf of the opposition. For this reason, they need to modify their slogan of “liberation of political prisoners” to make clear that they are not defending those who engage in violence. In addition, the opposition needs to cease calling street protests that are conducive to confrontations, disruptions and violence. Finally, the municipal governments controlled by the opposition need to promote the coordination of efforts that include the local police, the National Bolivarian Police, and the National Guard not only to counter violent protests, but peaceful illegal ones as well.